Sunday, January 27, 2013

The theory of universal comic punch lines

In my blog posts labeled "somewhat inappropriate," this has to be in the top 5, but I still thought it was funny. Robert Sinclair, a SF-based art director and communication designer, writes,
It was recently theorized that all New Yorker cartoons could be captioned with “Christ, what an asshole” without compromising their comedic value. 
I discovered this is true of virtually all comics, old and new:
et voila --

I will never see Family Circus the same way again.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Infusion Rerun: Martin Luther King on preaching

This entry was originally posted January 17, 2011.

I still remember listening to tapes of MLK's sermons while driving across country. It was the first time I'd heard anything beyond the I Have a Dream or I've Been to the Mountaintop speeches.

It was so amazing to hear that voice again, saying things I had never heard him say before. As I listened to King's sermons, I felt like I was following him from church to church, hearing him tell some of the same stories and make the same points, but hearing new things, too. He definitely got better as he went along: his delivery was more polished and his message became deeper and more urgent, but without anxiety. More broken, too, in some ways, as you shall see.

This morning I thought it would be interesting to find out what King had to say about the ministry of preaching itself. And the King Papers Project turned up a treasure trove, let me tell you.

Take, for example, this outline King wrote for his first semester preaching course when he was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948. Prepare to be shocked by King's atrocious spelling and grammar, and blown away by how consistent his thinking is with what he eventually did.

Oh, heck, I'm just going to copy the whole last part:
I fell that preaching is one of the most vital needs of our society, if it is used correctly. There is a great paradox in preaching, on the one hand it may be very helpful and on the other it may be very pernicious. It is my opinion that sincerity is not enough for the preaching ministry. The minister must be both sincere and intelligent. To often do our ministers possess the former but not the latter. This, I think, is a serious problem facing the ministry.

I think that preaching should grow out of the experiences of the people. Therefore, I as a minister must know the problems of the people that I am pastoring. To often do educated minister leave the people lost in the fog of theological abstractions, rather than presenting that theology in the light of the people’s experiences. It is my conviction that the minister must somehow take profound theological and philosophical views and place them in a concrete framework. I must forever make the complex, the simple.

Above all I see the preaching ministry as a duel process. On the one hand I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, I must be concerned about unemployment, slumms, and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocator of the socal gospel.
One year later, notes on Preaching Problems That I Have Encountered. Problem number 1: "Difficulty in preaching on special days that appear in the Christian year." Oh, honey. I hear ya. But you're going to see much bigger difficulties than that.

Which leads us to his sermon delivered June 5, 1966: Guidelines for a Constructive Church. Beautiful, and still relevant, and much of it has to do with the ministry of preaching.

We remember King as a great orator and a great social activist, but it seems pretty clear from this sermon that in King's mind, those two things are married together: preaching is social activism. It's that "duel process" (I kind of like the misspelling, there) of changing souls and changing the world. And as I mentioned last week, words have a funny way of going out there and doing things, more than you might imagine.

I read this sermon and I hear 20 years worth of dueling, and it has taken its toll. When King talks about the broken-hearted, I am sure he includes himself among them.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, or listen to it. Here is a smattering, a far better way to end this entry than anything I could say.
And Sunday after Sunday, week after week, people come to God’s church with broken hearts. (Yes, sir) They need a word of hope. And the church has an answer—if it doesn't, it isn't a church. (Yes) The church must say in substance that broken-heartedness is a fact of life. Don’t try to escape when you come to that experience. Don't try to repress it. Don't end up in cynicism. Don't get mean when you come to that experience. (Make it plain) The church must say to men and woman that Good Friday (Yes, sir) is a fact of life. The church must say to people that failure is a fact of life...

But what religion does say is this: that if you have faith in God, (Yes) that God has the power (Yes, sir) to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain. So let not your heart be troubled. (No, sir) "If ye believe in God, ye believe also in me." Another voice rings out, "Come unto me, all ye that labor (Yes, sir, Yes) and are heavy laden." As if to say, "Come unto me, all ye that are burdened down. Come unto me, all ye that are frustrated. Come unto me, all ye with clouds of anxiety floating in your mental skies. Come unto me, all ye that are broke down. (Yes, sir) Come unto me, all ye that are heartbroken. (Yes) Come unto me, all ye that are laden with heavy ladens, and I will give you rest." And the rest that God gives (Yes) is the rest that passeth all understanding. (Yes it does) The world doesn't understand that kind of rest, because it’s a rest that makes it possible (Yes) for you to stand up amid outer storms, and yet you maintain inner calm. (Yes) If the church is true to its guidelines, (Yes) it heals the broken-hearted.

Secondly, when the church is true to its guidelines, it sets out to preach deliverance (Yes, sir) to them that are captive. (Yes, sir) This is the role of the church: to free people. This merely means to free those who are slaves. Now if you notice some churches, they never read this part. Some churches aren't concerned about freeing anybody. Some white churches (Make it plain) face the fact Sunday after Sunday that their members are slaves to prejudice, (Yes, sir) slaves to fear. You got a third of them, or a half of them or more, slaves to their prejudices. (Yes, sir) And the preacher does nothing to free them from their prejudice so often. (Make it plain, Yes) Then you have another group sitting up there who would really like to do something about racial injustice, but they are afraid of social, political, and economic reprisals, (Make it plain) so they end up silent. And the preacher never says anything to lift their souls and free them from that fear. (Make it plain) And so they end up captive. You know this often happens in the Negro church. (Yeah) You know, there are some Negro preachers that have never opened their mouths about the freedom movement. And not only have they not opened their mouths, they haven’t done anything about it. And every now and then you get a few members: (Make it plain) "They talk too much about civil rights in that church." (That’s right) I was talking with a preacher the other day and he said a few of his members were saying that. I said, "Don't pay any attention to them. (Make it plain) Because number one, the members didn't anoint you to preach. (Yeah) And any preacher who allows members to tell him what to preach isn't much of a preacher." (Amen)


And then the church, if it is true to its guidelines, must preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Yes, sir, Make it plain) You know the acceptable year of the Lord is the year that is acceptable to God because it fulfills the demands of his kingdom. Some people reading this passage feel that it’s talking about some period beyond history, (Make it plain) but I say to you this morning that the acceptable year of the Lord can be this year. (Yes) And the church is called to preach it.


These are our guidelines, and if we will only follow the guidelines, we will be ready for God’s kingdom, (Yes) we will be doing what God’s church is called to do. We won’t be a little social club. (Make it plain) We won’t be a little entertainment center. But we’ll be about the serious business (Yes) of bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.

It seems that I can hear the God of the universe smiling and speaking to this church, saying, "You are a great church (Glory to God) because I was hungry and ye fed me. You are a great church because I was naked and ye clothed me. You are a great church because I was sick and ye visited me. You are a great church because I was in prison and ye gave me consolation by visiting me." (Yes, sir) And this is the church that’s going to save this world. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me (Yes) because he has anointed me to heal the broken-hearted, to set at liberty them that are captive, (Amen) and to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Irish Wolfhound Fan Club

Here's Liam the singing Irish Wolfhound:

Here's Harper's reaction to Liam the singing Irish Wolfhound:

Feel free to add your own thought bubbles.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Various & Sundry: People to avoid, theologians to watch, magicians to mislead

Oh, I give up. I'm not getting anything else done today, so I might as well move on to the snips and snails of the blogging week that I wanted to share with you.

The White House has gotten some push back on its recent proposal...not to build a death star. The Mischiefs of Faction debate the estimated cost of building the Death Star, the intergalactic politics of blowing up planets, and the technical work-arounds for the thermal exhaust port problem. And Galactic Empire Public Relations also posted a response: Planet Earth Abandons Death Star Project In Face Of Superior Galactic Imperial Power. Our planet is such a wuss.

In school shooting news, I'm surprised we haven't heard more about the fact that it wasn't an armed guard that stopped a shooting in Bakersfield, but an unarmed teacher who talked a student into putting down his weapon. Of course it may have helped that this was a shotgun and not a semi-automatic.

I doubt I would be able to stand up to someone holding a shotgun. On the other hand, I would do well to remember these 5 types of people to run like heck from: Distract-o-matics, Grillers, Status Claimers, Narcissists, and Non-Learners.
I just finished a huge and hard project in 2012, and I realize the people that made that project successful were exactly the opposite of this list of five-to-avoid: They were collaborators who were open and willing to explore ideas together, inherently curious people, and ones who didn’t grade our relationship on some hierarchical scale but based on our shared interests.
Good to remember.

Impressive news from the world of theology: 10 theologians under the age of 10, inspired by works as varied as Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? to Toy Story. Here's Derrick, age 10:
Author of Why I want to be an Archeologist
What was the first piece that had an impact on your theology?
The Missing Piece. I’m not sure you can say anything definitive about salvation and self-understanding if you’ve not read that book. This idea we have that we are somehow deficient, and need to spend our lives searching for that one piece that will make us whole is so destructive. Shel Silverstein did the world a great service.
Tell us a bit about the piece included for this list.
“Searching” is a theme in my life. Clarifying what our gifts and skills are is the first step to understanding who God has called and created us to be.
What makes good theology “good theology”?
I need it to do something new. Listen, we’ve all read Barth and Moltmann. Those guys are old hat. I want you to push a few boundaries. Make me see something I hadn’t before.
What is your current project?
I’m working on a lost treasure story. I’m thinking of calling it Seek and Ye Shall Find. Do you think that’s too on the nose?
Name one of your favorite theologians over 10.
I gotta go with Tony Jones. A Better Atonement is the best thing I read last year.
Suzannah Paul wrote a really great post on Privilege and the Emerging Church. Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr remind women that work isn't school. And illusionist Derren Brown explains why you are deceived.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Review: Looper

I watched Looper last weekend and couldn't sleep after I saw it. Not because it was violent, though it was (more on that shortly), but because I had to keep mulling it over and over. I was still mulling it over the next day, and I'm still turning it over in my mind, asking myself, "Is that really about what I think it was about?" Because if it is, it's a completely different movie from the one I was expecting going in.

I had seen and loved Rian Johnson's first film Brick, which set film noir conventions against a high school angst film to great success. Not a movie for kids, to be sure. But a really interesting film. So I had been looking forward to seeing Looper since it first came out last fall.

I sure am glad I watched it at home, however, as it was so tense I would stop it from time to time, walk around the house a little bit, and tweet about how tense it was (while seeing some calming news about who was tap dancing and/or baton twirling at the Miss America Pageant) before I could continue.

It's very hard to write about this movie without spoilers, but I will try.

The premise is this: Our protagonist, Joe, lives in 2044 Kansas City. He announces as the movie begins that "time travel hasn't been invented yet." But by the 2070's it will be. It's illegal, but crime bosses use it to get rid of people without a trace.

Joe is a Looper, someone who's job is to shoot these people when they are sent back in time and dispose of the body. He's paid in silver bars that are strapped to the back of the person being killed. Since the victim wears a bag over his head (always a he, as far as I saw), he's depersonalized, not someone Joe knows, or even sees for more than a second before shooting him in the chest. Soul-deadening, but lucrative.

There's a catch to this set-up. One time, you will shoot someone, turn him over to get your payment and discover gold bars. This means you have shot your future self and "closed the loop." You cash out with your golden pay day and retire from the business, knowing you have 30 more good years ahead of you to do whatever you want. As our narrator says, "This job does not attract the most forward-thinking people."

Then one day, a man shows up to be shot without the bag on his head, and Joe realizes he's looking at the 30-years-older version of himself. Who escapes. Which means young Joe is in terrible trouble with the local-time representative of the crime syndicate that pays the Loopers. And that's not good.

And that's where I'm stopping with the recap because the rest of the movie confounded my expectations and I want it to confound yours too.

A couple of things: first of all, Jeff Daniels plays the local time crime boss and freaked me out so completely that when I saw him the next day all spiffed up for the Golden Globes for his role as straight-arrow Will McAvoy, I honest to goodness felt scared. That's how good he was. And the reason he was so scary is that he seemed almost kind--so persuasive and reasonable. Such a subtle portrayal of evil, one that looks so nice.

The whole time travel thing is dealt with very adroitly. It raises all the usual questions: can you change the past? If you go back and change the past, how does it change the future? Which of course raises the existential question, how does what we do here and now change what the future will be?

Finally: let's talk violence. Rian Johnson does a very clever thing, here. You see the depersonalized violence of Joe's job and since you don't know these people either, it doesn't matter much. But there is one character you get to know, if only slightly, and terrible things happen to him. But you don't see them directly. And it is horrifying. With an amazing absence of gore, you still get the chills at the horror of what is happening to this character.

But here's the even more important thing: the core thesis of this movie, I would argue, is that violence will not solve your problems. In fact, this movie is a parable for Martin Luther King's argument: "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." I didn't expect that. At all. This is not a movie that supports the myth of redemptive violence. This is a movie that ultimately stands on the side of self-sacrificing love. I never would have guessed.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Golden Globes as Preaching Seminar

If I were teaching a preaching class, I think I would bring in videos of the acceptance speeches given by Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence at the Golden Globes last night as an opportunity for discussion.

Why these two and not Jodie Foster's speech? Or Daniel Day Lewis? Well, for one, I think these two women are an apples-to-apples comparison. Foster is doing something completely different. And for another, these two have both strengths and flaws, great for discussion. Daniel Day-Lewis offered something damn near perfect, imo, and therefore not nearly so interesting to talk about. Except to say, "Here's why this is so good. We can aspire to these characteristics."

I'd also do these two because I've seen some pretty strong reactions to each (including my own) and I'd want to explore that subjective reaction a little more deeply. There's definitely one I "like" and one I "don't like," which may or may not have anything to do with what these women say or do.

I'd have people watch both speeches once with the sound off, and discuss that. And then I'd have them watch the speeches again with the words. It's too easy to get caught up in the words, but I think there's a lot to be learned from mere presence.

So I'm not teaching a class, but since you're here, what do you think?

Watching with the sound off:
  • What was the overall impression you got from each woman through her facial expressions? Gestures? What message did you receive?
  • Which one made you feel more comfortable as you watched her? Why? If you felt uncomfortable, can you pinpoint at what moment you felt uncomfortable? 
  • What overall emotional impression(s) did they give? What emotions did you read?
Watching with sound:
  • What was the overall impression you got from each woman through what she said?
  • What parts of the message jarred you?
  • At what points did you feel each woman best connected with her audience? At what points did she seem disconnected? What made the difference?
  • What overall emotional impression(s) did they give? What emotions did you read?
And finally, the key questions:

  • Which one did you like best? Why? And what does that say about what is important to you in communication?
Sorry these embedded videos don't work, but do watch them, if you wish. I'll put my reactions below:

Realizing that my reactions now are colored by my initial reactions yesterday, here are my thoughts, bearing in mind these are very much my personal and subjective impressions:

Anne Hathaway: reads to me as trying hard to appear humble. Very girlish. She cannot seem to settle on eye contact or looking down. Her hand gestures are large and somewhat stiff, leaving me with the strange impression that she is both very rehearsed and yet uncomfortable. Lots of tension in her neck. Her emotions seem to be fighting with one another as she seeks to control her genuine excitement. The joke about the "blunt object" fell flat as a "li'l ol' me!" piece of schtick. Due to her success, I don't think she can do a "li'l ol' me" any more. If I were to give her advice, I'd tell her to quit trying to be the Nice Girl. It's not coming off right for me. Also: quit touching your hair.

Jennifer Lawrence: Seems genuinely happy and relaxed, which makes her read as genuine, though I suspect her speech was just as rehearsed and studied as Anne Hathaway's. I liked the joke about "I beat Meryl!" which sounded like reverence and not a put-down, though I can see how it might be understood differently - which is a lesson right there. The extremism of the Harvey Weinstein line along with her deadpan delivery made the joke both obvious and very funny. The reversal of thanking her brothers for being mean makes the joke work. She's got great comic chops. If I were to give her advice, I'd say that when you need to say, "All jokes aside," it's a clue that something might not be working quite right. But I thought it was terrific.

All of which says to me what's important to me in communication is good humor and authenticity -- or at least a very good facsimile thereof.

Oh, and by the by: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler! Kick-ass job. I know they're waiting for my call.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"This is not the petition response you're looking for"

First of all, I declare death to the Sunday Funnies feature here at the Infusion for 2013. I'll keep posting stuff I think is funny on Sundays, but the whole "Sunday Funnies" title was making me tired.

Anyway...I loved the White House's response to the online petition (signed by a good 34,000 people) asking the Obama Administration to, and I quote, "Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016."

Here is the official response:

In case that text is a little too small, here it is:

Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.
This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For
By Paul Shawcross

The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

However, look carefully (here's how) and you'll notice something already floating in the sky -- that's no Moon, it's a Space Station! Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that's helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations. The Space Station has six astronauts -- American, Russian, and Canadian -- living in it right now, conducting research, learning how to live and work in space over long periods of time, routinely welcoming visiting spacecraft and repairing onboard garbage mashers, etc. We've also got two robot science labs -- one wielding a laser -- roving around Mars, looking at whether life ever existed on the Red Planet.

Keep in mind, space is no longer just government-only. Private American companies, through NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO), are ferrying cargo -- and soon, crew -- to space for NASA, and are pursuing human missions to the Moon this decade.

Even though the United States doesn't have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we've got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we're building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We are discovering hundreds of new planets in other star systems and building a much more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that will see back to the early days of the universe.

We don't have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the Space Station, a President who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke's arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers.

We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field. The President has held the first-ever White House science fairs and Astronomy Night on the South Lawn because he knows these domains are critical to our country's future, and to ensuring the United States continues leading the world in doing big things.

If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

Paul Shawcross is Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget

It is a relief to know that this Administration does not support blowing up planets.

h/t BuzzFeed

Friday, January 11, 2013

Various & Sundry: Starting with National Hot Tea Month and ending with sloths

Let's see what's been piling up during the week that I'm bursting to share with one and all.

First things first: January is National Hot Tea Month. Well, to be honest, every month is National Hot Tea Month, as far as I'm concerned, so I don't have any special celebrations planned. I did think that these tea pods were pretty cute, though.

See how the tag is a little origami boat so it floats on the tea water?
What? Too precious for you? Fine.

How about a website that helps you plan your living wills and stuff? That real enough for you? It's called Get Your Shit Together.

I don't have all my shit together, but I did get my flu shot today, thanks in part to this old post of mine about passing the peace without spreading the flu. I kept noticing it coming up in the stats as people look for what to do in the midst of the flu outbreak. I've added a brief update, based on the comments that were made. I wish there were a perfect solution - or no flu.

After going to the meeting on Wednesday about how Washington plans to reduce gun violence, I was drawn to two articles focused on the NRA: this article traces the fairly recent history of the NRA's connection to fighting for the interests of the firearm industry as opposed to gun owners; while this article suggests the White House may just ignore the NRA. I'd be fine with that.

Lance Mannion has been writing Miserable Thoughts about Les Mis and tying them to our contemporary culture, politics, and religion. I thought his post about the character of the Bishop of Digne was particularly spectacular. Truly, I hope you'll read it. Here's how it ends:
Conservative Christian leaders are quick to tell us that every hurricane, terrorist attack, and school shooting is an angry God’s will. He’s punishing us for abortion, feminism, secularism, “the homosexual agenda,” etc. But he never punishes us for our greed and our lack of charity. We’re punished for allowing gay couples to get married but not for letting children go hungry and old people freeze or swelter to death or sick people to go without medicine or a doctor’s care.

God is always punishing us for not being mean enough to each other and ourselves and never for not doing a good enough job of loving one another.
I'd never heard it put that way. His Fifth Miserable Thought on Jalvert the Republican (French, not American) is also fantastic.

This long reflection on how we need to ask ourselves questions when we consume media was eye-opening to me. I had never thought of the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast as an abuse-apologist narrative. Now, I will not be able to see it as anything but.
I get that it’s hard to see something you love get lambasted, or tarred with a brush you’d rather not think about, or called bad names. I get that it feels like things are being ruined, like people are looking for things to hate, like people are taking things too seriously.

But consuming media critically is a skill, and in an age where media is more prevalent than ever before, it’s a skill worth having. It’s a skill worth having because you are going to continue to be exposed to media, and it is going to continue to attempt to manipulate you. It’s a skill worth having because it makes it less difficult to see people talking shit about things you like, not more. It’s a skill worth having because some of the shit being taught en masse by media is horrible scary damaging shit, and maybe you don’t think you’ve learned that horrible scary damaging shit, and maybe you don’t think you’re susceptible to that horrible scary damaging shit, and honestly? Maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’re not. I don’t know you. But I know that a classroom full of average southern Ohio state school students went silent in horror at the full realization of what Beauty and the Beast teaches kids too young to know better.
On a lighter note, I admire the chutzpah of the man who claimed he was driving legally in the carpool lane with two people because he had Articles of Incorporation in the passenger seat. Corporations are people, my friends.

And finally, because it's been a long week, slow down with some true facts about sloths.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Report: Forum on Prevention of Gun Violence

Last night, I went to a Forum on Gun Violence Prevention, hosted by our Congressman, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) who, as it happens, is the chair of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. He's been hosting forums all week to solicit ideas to bring to the table. "This is not about slogans," he said at the meeting last night. "This is about crafting good public policy."

I'll go into detail about the meeting, but I want to make sure you know to send your recommendations on what we can do to reduce gun violence to:
The Hon. Mike Thompson (click link for email)
231 Cannon Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
(202) 225-3311
Now, back to the meeting:

It was a packed house, standing room only, and I was glad we got there about 20 minutes early so we could get seats.

We heard from the Mayor, who introduced the Congressman. After opening remarks, the Congressman introduced members of a panel including the Chief of Police, the Director of Health and Human Services for Vallejo County, and representatives from mental health services, the schools, and the Department of Justice.

The panel had some compelling speakers. The Chief of Police shared the recommendations of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which include reinstating the assault weapons ban. The school rep had the very basic suggestions of being able to lock classrooms from the inside, and having windows in the doors so you could see what was happening in the hallway.

The representative from the Department of Justice had information on the background check process in California, and statistics on the number of gun applications that were turned down. Here are the numbers: in the State of California, there are 19,000 people on the list of those prohibited from owning weapons who own 39,000 weapons. Additionally, of those who submit to background checks, 21% get turned down. Holy mackerel! What is it like in states that don't have background checks?

Then the Congressman opened up to speakers from the audience. It was a mixed bunch, as you might imagine. Most poignant were two sisters of a man shot by police last September. One of them had the very interesting comment that most police officers are required to have only one mental health evaluation, and suggested that this was one area of mental health care that should be re-examined.

Another compelling presenter had a son (?) killed by a gun purchased at a garage sale (!). He now works to educate people on the proper disposal of weapons.

Of course there was the usual back and forth about the right to bear arms versus the context of the Second Amendment. We left after the speaker who announced that "we need body armor" and hollow-point bullets. I wanted to say to him, "Do you really want to live in a country where we need body armor? Really?" But I guess he does.

Thinking about it now, I think the thing I want to ask of my Congressman is, for God's sake, stand up to the NRA and encourage others to do the same! The NRA is not all-powerful. Why are we treating them as if they are? Why do we let them set the agenda? I don't believe our policies are not going to change without that fundamental shift in attitude. So how do we get our representatives to do that? I wish I'd thought to ask him that.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Their Own Country

Cross-posted on the Confirm not Conform blog.

I had an epiphany a couple of days ago.

I have heard many a sermon on the magi that talked about how they traveled home by a different road. But this year, it was the snippet of a phrase immediately before that that caught my attention: “they left for their own country.”

It reminded me of a sermon I heard many, many years ago, probably when I was a teenager myself. I even remember the title: “The three unwise men.” And the argument made by the preacher was, “It’s all well and good that they came to worship Jesus, but why didn’t they stick around?” Thinking about it now, that seemed to be a pointed jab at the Christmas and Easter crowd for Not Faithfully Attending, but I remember being annoyed at the time on behalf of the wise men who had made the effort to travel a very long way. After all, the chief priests and scribes who told the magi where the child would be born were in a town just a few miles away. Why weren’t they there?

But that’s not the epiphany. The epiphany was this: people live in different countries. Metaphorically speaking, I mean. And believe me when I say I think our church can do a heck of a lot better job keeping people involved and included – people for whom our churches are their native land.

But I think a lot of us are like that preacher long ago: we believe that to be truly faithful, you need to stay in our country. Never mind how far you have traveled. Never mind what efforts you have made. If you don’t stay with us, then clearly you are not truly faithful. And all our efforts are spent on making sure you stay in our country, our denomination, our worship services, our programs.

Maybe this year we need to do some more traveling. Maybe this year, we need to visit their countries – not to change people, not to convince them, not to draw them back, but simply to visit, to bring gifts, to rejoice, to pay homage, and to return to our own country, transformed by the God who leads us home.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reading Auden for Christmas

I tend to look at blog stats too much, but I'm glad I did so recently when I noticed someone had clicked on Christmas Oratorio. What's that? I wondered, and found a post I'd done a year ago that was a poem by W.H. Auden that is fantastic. (It's reposted below.)

I did a little more digging and found it was one small snippet of a very long piece called For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. The plan was for Benjamin Britten to set it to music, which would have been fantastic except it probably would have taken days to perform. It's 37 pages of text in the edition of Collected Poems I checked out of the library, and covers from Advent to the Flight Into Egypt.

And it ends there, with the flight into Egypt. I hadn't thought about that, about how Christmas ends with a cliffhanger. The order of events gets so mixed up in the calendar, with the magi arriving tomorrow on Epiphany (in the church year), but the Slaughter of the Innocents, which happens after they leave, occurred a week ago on December 28.

And so, with Joseph and Mary and Jesus on the lam, and with the recitative immediately before beginning, "Fly, Holy Family, from our immediate rage," the next-to-last section begins with "Well, so that is that." So shocking, and so wonderful.

There are so many wonderful, shocking moments in this work. I haven't made my way through it all yet. I loved part II in the Temptation of Joseph section. Here's a little bit:
  For those delicious memories
Cigars and sips of brandy can restore
To old dried boys, for gallantry that scrawls
  In idolatrous detail and size
A symbol of aggression on toilet walls,
For having reasoned -- "Woman is naturally pure
since she has no moustache," for having said,
  "No woman has a business head,"
You must learn now that masculinity,
To nature, is a non-essential luxury.
And Herod's essay/proclamation on The Massacre of the Innocents is incredible.

But the whole thing is. It's worth savoring. It gave me so much to think about in a deep Christmas mode, far past the manger. I can see this is a work I will have to revisit when Advent rolls around.

The oratorio ends with this text, which is in the Episcopal hymnal and have never heard sung. It makes much more sense in its original context.

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
October 1941-July 1942

From "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio" by W.H. Auden

The Flight Into Egypt

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Various & Sundry: My Miserable Pony Takes the GOEs, Gains Wisdom

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this tweet:
Until I saw this:

OK! Now that we've got that out of the way...

The General Ordination Exams are this week, testing potential Episcopal priests on subjects that I cannot recall at the moment. The Crusty Old Dean is having quite a time of it, expounding on each question, and for Episcopal geekery, he cannot be beat.

I am so glad I will never have to take those again. I realized today that they reminded me (to expand the field of geekery) of the Kobayashi Maru simulation, given to Star Fleet Academy cadets to put them in a no-win situation. Unless you're Kirk.

In other movie news, Buzzfeed offers A "Les Miz" Character Guide. For example:

And since I'm doing lots of videos today, here's that video that's been making the rounds of a family falling apart after seeing Les Miz. I fall apart just watching the trailer, so believe me, I'm laughing with them.

Oh, and for all you GOE-takers out there, and others as well, I offer you James Martin's 12 things I wish I knew at 25.  Probably especially 7, 8, and 9.
1. First up: Stop worrying so much! It's useless. (I.e. Jesus was right.) 
2. Being a saint means being yourself. Stop trying to be someone else and just be your best self. Saves you heartache. 
3. There's no right way to pray, any more than there's a right way to be a friend. What's "best" is what works best for you. 
4. Remember three things and save yourself lots of unneeded heartache: You're not God. This ain't heaven. Don't act like a jerk. 
5. Your deepest, most heartfelt desires are God's desires for you. And vice versa. Listen. And follow them. 
6. Within you is the idea of your best self. Act as if you were that person and you will become that person, with God's grace. 
7. Don't worry too much about the worst that can happen. Even if it happens, God is with you, and you can handle it. Really. 
8. You can't force people to approve of you, agree with you, be impressed with you, love you or even like you. Stop trying. 
9. When we compare, we are usually imagining someone else's life falsely. So our real-life loses out. I.e. Compare and despair. 
10. Even when you finally realized the right thing, or the Christian thing, to do, it can still be hard to do. Do it anyway. 
11. Seven things to say frequently: I love you. Thank you. Thank you, God. Forgive me. I'm so happy for you! Why not? Yes. 
12. Peace and joy come after asking God to free you -- from anything that keeps you from being loving and compassionate.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: Grace

I have been a reading fool the past few weeks, which has been a treat for me. And as a humongous indulgence, I bought -- in hardback! -- the new memoir Grace by Grace Coddington.

Like many people I met Grace through the movie The September Issue, which was about the production of Vogue's mammoth fall collections issue. Ostensibly, the focus of the movie is Anna Wintour. But Grace Coddington steals the show (I'll post a clip of the movie below). She looks more like an ex-nun, stumping around the Vogue offices in sensible shoes, than she does an ex-model who used to hang out with Mick Jagger and the like.

She steals the show again in this book. Though she's not a booky person, she's a good storyteller and has lots of stories to tell. She includes a lot of her own sketches, which are wonderful. And be aware that at the back of the book are lots of photos from the fashion shoots she describes in the text.

I read a few reviews from people who were frustrated because they didn't know fashion and didn't know the people she was talking about. Well, I don't know fashion either. But I read it like a book with vocabulary words I didn't understand, taking my time and looking things up as I went along -- or just allowing things to wash over me if I didn't want to spend the time on complete comprehension. What's great with the internet is you can look up people, images, notable fashion collections, even, and find out what she means. I thought it was incredibly rewarding, even if it did slow me down a little.

Mostly I continue to think she is an incredibly compelling person with no pretensions, thoroughly herself and unconcerned whether you like it or not.

If you do want to read this, and aren't a fashion person, I recommend you watch The September Issue as well, and probably as an introduction. It certainly helped me to hear her voice throughout and understand a little better the world and some of the people she describes.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review: The Hunger Games trilogy

Book 1: The Hunger Games
I've been meaning to read The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins for forever, but only just got to them last month. They were a very satisfying and interesting read.

Satisfying because they were well-written and plot driven and I love a good, dense, and well-constructed plot.

Interesting because the books allowed things to be complicated. "Good" and "bad" were not as clear-cut as they first appear. Finding the right person for you and falling in love is not a straightforward proposition. And heroic deeds are not all done by heroes, or even by nice people.

Book 2: Catching Fire
Nor is the result of heroic behavior restful sleep and pleasant dreams. Those called upon to kill one another, whether for justice or for entertainment, are severely damaged by the experience. And you don't often see that in hero's quest books of this nature.

For that reason, I liked the third book, Mockingjay, best of the three (though I though all were terrific). I appreciated how Collins both resolved the action in a truly satisfying way while writing the experience in a way that seemed emotionally believable.

Book 3: Mockingjay
One of the thought-provoking things about it was how it explored the notion that, one way or another, violence would be done and people would be hurt. So given that you have no perfect option, what is the best option you have? What if you know that no matter what you choose, other people will get hurt? What will you do? It reminded me, of all things, of the movie Lincoln, in which the awful choice is to allow the bloody Civil War to continue so that the violent system of slavery can be abolished. Either way, people suffer and die. So what do you choose? Whose lives do you spare? No matter which way you go, your hands are going to have blood on them. So how do you play the game?

Be warned: these books are very violent. Brutal, even. There's no way you'll get me to see the movie versions. But I doubt I'd want to anyway. The books are told in first person, and part of the pleasure and complexity of these books is thinking along with our protagonist Katniss Everdeen about what is happening and how to deal with it. I'm not sure I'd simply want to see what happens without also knowing the mental struggle that's going on inside.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Where God Hides Holiness: A Personal Reflection

Last week, I wrote a review of Where God Hides Holiness with my professional hat on for the Confirm not Conform blog. But I also wanted to write my personal response here on my personal blog.

In the book, co-authored by Mary E. Koppel and Laurie Brock, each woman tells her story of the church breaking her heart. Both Episcopal priests, they served in the same diocese as assistants in two different churches. Each one lost her position when she could no longer conform to the external appearance demanded of her. Each one is now working somewhere else. They also still blog at the wonderful Dirty Sexy Ministry.

I read Mary's harrowing account straight through without stopping. In her case, she went through six miscarriages, a failed adoption, and a divorce. As a single mother, she loses her church job. (Her rector says she quit; she says she was fired.) What happens next?! I truly couldn't put it down until I found out. Mary's story was dramatic, but her writing style beautifully spare. Watching her experience I simply wanted to know what happened. Would she be OK? I rooted for her from the sidelines and cheered for her success.

Laurie's story was different. She experienced a lot of grief, but also confusion - that crazy-making confusion where people around you tell you everything is fine while deep down you know something is wrong. I heard the ominous music start the moment she interviewed with the rector who told her, "We aren't just colleagues here, we're friends." Dun dun DUNNNNN!!! I knew in that instant that Laurie was in for trouble.

I read her story much more slowly, finding myself every so often stopping and staring into space. I was rooting for Laurie, but I was also reliving my own first church call.

It was over 10 years ago, but there are still moments that are indelible. My own "dun dun DUNNNN" moment was at my first meeting with the rector when he explained that "loyalty was important" to him, and that, due to the fact that we were in a very small town, I could not talk to anyone in town (whether they were part of the parish or not) about what went on between us. The next moment came soon after when the parish administrator asked what title I would like to have; when I said I wanted to be called chaplain, the rector explained that I should be called "Mother." I insisted on chaplain, to which the rector said, "Women never think about things like this."  Dun dun DUNNNN!!!

He could be late to any meeting - or skip them entirely; I could not, even when I had a doctor's appointment or had gotten lost. My time belonged to him. My priorities were forever being co-opted. Any trespass, no matter how small, was a sign of my insubordination. It showed that I "didn't have the first idea of what it meant to be an assistant." Perfection was the only acceptable option, and perfection was not possible. This lasted to the very time I submitted my letter of resignation, which did not occur as he wished. He came into my office and said these unforgettable words. "You are my assistant. You serve at my pleasure. You will do what I say."

He's now the dean of a cathedral.

Thank God for several things: one, a very good spiritual director who, when it became necessary, directed me to professional medical help; two, a wonderful therapist and psychiatrist who prescribed anti-anxiety medication when the pressure became so much that I could not sleep at night; and three, a supportive group of friends to whom I had been writing a "weekly report," an email of the goings on, who could tell that things were not right and who knew I was not crazy. Thank God also for my bishop who did not let the rector set the date for my ordination to the priesthood as he had wanted.

So, yes, reading Laurie's story brought much of this back. It also brought back something much closer.

Just a couple of months ago, I had gone to have coffee with a new priest in a nearby parish, looking perhaps for a new colleague and friend. She, of course, asked about my history and I told her some of this story in what I thought was a light-hearted, "here's what happened" sort of way. She nodded and said, "It sounds like you're still grieving."

It made me furious. Rightly or wrongly, what I heard when she said this was, "and you shouldn't be grieving any more. It was a long time ago." Rightly or wrongly, I really didn't want her to put on the professional pastor voice at that moment. I just wanted her to talk to me like a normal human being, not like someone who is Offering Spiritual Insight. Rightly or wrongly, what I would have liked to hear was, "How rotten!" or, in my more selfish moments, "What a jerk!" I did not care to be told I was grieving. Still grieving.

Which is why Laurie's story was so freeing for me. Because rather than implying that my grief was some sign of spiritual turpitude, she writes,
My years in ministry remind me that grief is never a done process, however much we might like it to be. We do not easily slip through the stages of grief as if they are way stations that simply slow our journey through life. Grief is a part of our souls that is ripped away, and we spend our lives working with and around that part that is now absent. The longer we live and love and lose those we love, the more grief we acquire, so that each subsequent loss just adds to our brokenness. We don't get over grief; we somehow allow it to change us, hopefully for the richer. [emphasis mine]
So, thank you, Laurie, for sharing your story. Let me just say, How rotten! And what a jerk! And thank you so much for reassuring me that I'm not somehow stuck in grief, that I'm not wallowing or victimized, but that it's part of me for better or worse. Hopefully for the better.